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NASCAR Cup Series

Erik Jones Gets First Victory in Action-Packed Daytona Free-For-All

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In a wild war of attrition that went to two overtimes, Erik Jones outdueled Martin Truex Jr. on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway to seize the first victory of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career.

In a Coke Zero Sugar 400 that went eight laps beyond its scheduled 160, Jones passed the reigning series champion on the backstretch of the final lap and held on to win by .125 seconds. Jones battled back from damage sustained in a multicar wreck on Lap 65, an accident that cost him a lap.

The final circuit was the only one Jones led.

“How about that race, boys and girls?” Jones shouted to the fans in the grandstands after his celebratory burnout in front of the flag stand. “My first Cup win, My first win at Daytona, my first superspeedway win-what an awesome day, man!

“There’s so much smoke in the car from that burnout, I can hardly breathe, but what an awesome finish.”

AJ Allmendinger ran third after a nine-car wreck ended the first overtime attempt with Truex approaching the finish line just short of the end of the white-flag lap. That wreck provided the coup de grace for Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson and Trevor Bayne.

Only 20 of the 40 cars that started the race were running at the finish, and only 13 finished on the lead lap. Kasey Kahne came home fourth after leading 17 laps, and Chris Buescher ran fifth, matching his finish in the season-opening Daytona 500.

With a push from Kahne, Truex got the lead after the final restart on Lap 167 but couldn’t hold it. The outside lane was more organized as the final lap unfolded, and Jones got a strong run through Turns 1 and 2.

“He (Jones) got a big run getting into (Turn) 1 and through the center, and I just didn’t block him good enough in the middle of 1 and 2,” Truex said. “He got to my right rear quarter-just barely-enough to slow me down off of 2, and then the race was on from there.

“Just missed that block a little bit. I’ve got to get better at my mirror-driving. I’ve never really been good at that, and unfortunately, that’s part of this racing here, but I’m really proud to get to the end.”

Truex had posted only one other top-five finish-a second in the 2016 Daytona 500-in 26 previous starts at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.

Two massive wrecks in Stage 2, both involving Ricky Stenhouse Jr., eliminated the majority of the contending cars and opened the door for a new winner.

On Lap 54, Brad Keselowski was running behind leader William Byron when his No. 2 Ford turned off the front bumper of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s Fusion, slammed into the No. 41 of Kurt Busch and ignited a Turn 3 wreck that involved 24 cars and wiped out all three Team Penske entries, along with Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez and pole winner Chase Elliott.

But Keselowski didn’t blame Stenhouse. He pointed the finger at Byron, who moved down the track to put a late block on the No. 2 and forced Keselowski to check up.

“Ricky was doing the best he could to give me a good push and had a great run to take the lead, and the car in front of me (Byron) just threw a late, bad block,” Keselowski said. “I made the mistake of lifting instead of just driving through him, and that’s my fault.

“I’ve got to wreck more people, and then they’ll stop blocking me late and behind like that. That’s my fault. I’ll take the credit for my team, and we’ll go to Talladega, and we’ll wreck everybody that throws a bad block like that.”

Byron didn’t stay up front for long. He was leading again on Lap 65 when Stenhouse tapped the left rear of series leader Kyle Busch’s Toyota and sent the No. 18 Camry spinning into Byron’s Chevrolet. Both Byron and Busch were knocked out of the race in that accident.

“I tried to side-draft the 18 (Busch) in the wrong place,” a subdued Stenhouse said on his team radio.

Byron lost a good chance to improve on his 21st position in the standings.

“The No. 17 car (Stenhouse) just kind of, I guess, hooked the No. 18 into me,” Byron said. “It seemed like he was being really aggressive, and that’s the second time we’ve kind of been on the wrong end of something with him.

“Unfortunate for us, but we had a good race going. We needed to really have a really good day, because of the points position we’re in, but that is just part of speedway racing, I guess. But it stinks to be on that side of it. But at least we led some laps (12), so that was good.”

Notes: Stenhouse won the first and second stages, garnering his first playoff points of the season, before sustaining serious damage in a Lap 124 wreck. He finished 17th, one lap down… Harvick’s No. 4 team did yeoman work to repair his car after it suffered extensive body damage in the Lap 54 accident. Harvick led the field to green on Lap 162 to start the first overtime, but he fell victim to the nine-car wreck before that circuit was completed… Despite a 33rd-place finish, Kyle Busch retained the series lead by 57 points over Harvick.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Three Joe Gibbs Racing Cup Series Car Chiefs Suspended

Following the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway, three Joe Gibbs Racing Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car chiefs have been suspended.

The No. 11 of Denny Hamlin, the No. 18 of Kyle Busch, and the No. 20 of Erik Jones were found in violation of section 20.4.3.a of the NASCAR rulebook, which pertains to the splitter of their vehicles.

As a result, their respective crew chiefs Chris Gayle (No. 11), Adam Stevens (No. 18), and Mike Wheeler (N0. 20) were fined $25,000 each, with the car chiefs (Jason Overstreet for No. 11, Nate Bellows for No. 18, Brandon Griffeth for No. 20) suspended for the next Cup Series points eligible event. 

It marks the first significant penalty for each driver in 2018, but second for Joe Gibbs Racing. Following the AAA 400 Drive for Autism at Dover International Speedway, Daniel Suarez‘s car chief was suspended for an event for violating section 20.4.h Body and 20.4.8.1.c Rear Window Support and Structure of the NASCAR Rulebook with not having the rear window flush to the deck lid.

This marks the second splitter related penalty of 2018, after Austin Dillon‘s  car chief Greg Ebert was suspended for an event following the AAA 400.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

 

Categories
XFINITY

Erik Jones Completes Texas Motor Speedway Sweep With NASCAR XFINITY Win

FORT WORTH, Tex. – There was no keeping up with Erik Jones on Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway – though Ryan Blaney tried his level best over the closing laps of the O’Reilly Auto Parts 300.

Jones, the pole winner, swept the first and second stages of the event, led 142-of-200 laps and completed the season sweep of NASCAR XFINITY Series races at the 1.5-mile track – the first time that’s happened since Kyle Busch won both races in 2009.

The victory was Jones’ third of the season, his third in six starts at TMS and the ninth of his career. Though the race was decisive in Jones’ favor, it settled little with regard to the XFINITY Series Playoff, with no driver clinching a spot in the Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Regaining the lead after a cycle of green-flag pit stops, when Ty Dillon pulled onto pit road on Lap 192, Jones kept Blaney behind him the rest of the way and powered his No. 20 Joes Gibbs racing Toyota across the finish line 1.018 seconds ahead of Blaney’s No. 22 Team Penske Ford.

After last year’s fall race, the track was repaved. If anything, the new configuration made Jones even faster.

“It’s sure been a good race track to me,” Jones said. “On the old track and the repave now. It’s just been a place I’ve enjoyed coming to. The first time I came here in a truck, I’ll never forget, I never thought I’d like the place, and ever since then it’s just kind of clicked for me.

“Just excited to get back to Victory Lane. It’s been a few months since I’ve grabbed a win and the 20 guys have got a win, so happy to get them back here. They’ve brought fast cars for the last month, and we just haven’t found Victory Lane, so cool to get back here again and just happy for these guys.”

After Blaney made his last stop for fuel on Lap 185, and Jones pitted a lap later, Blaney trailed the race winner by less than a car length when they both regained top speed. Passing was another matter.

“It just stinks we couldn’t get around him,” said Blaney, who is in the thick of the battle for a Championship 4 spot in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. “I thought we had a shot after the green-flag stop. I thought we were way better, but we got held up a couple times by traffic.

“I thought we had the car to win – just a matter of trying to get in front of him, and I couldn’t pass anybody. I tried to get him loose a couple times and couldn’t do it. I about wrecked myself trying to get him loose. It’s really hard to get around anybody. Hopefully, that gets a little better for tomorrow.”

Kyle Larson came home third after two snafus on pit road cost him a chance to win. Under caution on Lap 92, after the end of the second stage, Larson came to pit road before it was open. Though he didn’t stop for service, Larson lost positions when he blended back in line.

And after a stop on Lap 127, Larson had to return to pit road to allow his crew to tighten a loose lug nut. With the race going green to the finish after the subsequent restart on Lap 131, Larson ran out of time in his pursuit of the winner and runner-up.

Elliott Sadler ran fourth and took the series lead by five points over JR Motorsports teammate William Byron, who ran ninth. Justin Allgaier, the third JR Motorsports Playoff driver, is nine points behind Sadler after an 11th-place finish.

“My car was really good tonight,” Sadler said. “Erik and Blaney were so much better into (Turns) 1 and 2. They had it figured out. I’ve got to go to work before we come back here in the spring. But all in all, it was a great night for us.”

Cole Custer finished fifth, recovering from a punctured tire that dropped him rapidly from his front-row starting position but the driver of the No. 00 Ford leaves Texas in sixth place, 13 points behind fourth-place Brennan Poole, with the Playoff field to be cut to the top four after next Saturday’s race at Phoenix.

Matt Tifft ran eighth and is fifth in the standings, five points behind Poole.

Categories
XFINITY

Erik Jones Left Irked by JGR Teammate Christopher Bell

The post-weekend meeting at Joe Gibbs Racing after Saturday’s NASCAR XFINITY Series Kansas Lottery 300 is going to be interesting following contact between teammates Christopher Bell and Erik Jones.

Jones had dominated the event, leading 186 laps, including holding the top spot following the final round of pit stops. Though as the laps closed down, the gap between himself and Bell had shrunk, and with four to go, Bell was right there on Jones’ bumper.

Going into turn three with four to go, Bell dived beneath Jones, sliding up in front of him off the corner. As Bell got out of the gas to avoid hitting the wall, Jones got into the back of him, before both Toyota Camrys bounced off the wall. Bell was able to hold on and win the event, while Jones limped to a 15th-place finish.

“Well, I mean it’s not dirt racing, you know,” Jones said. “He’s not clear. I can’t just stop on the top. I mean he was – I didn’t expect him just to drive in on the bottom so far, he wouldn’t be able to hold his lane. It’s unfortunate. The Reser’s Camry was really good, and I thought we were going to race for the win, and unfortunately it wasn’t much of a race. It was more of a wreck. It’s unfortunate, but we’ll just have to move on.”

Bell stated in victory lane that he is going to apologize to Jones for his part in the contact.

“I tried to drive in deep into turn three and clear him and get back to the top, but I hate that we didn’t get to race it out and he didn’t get to finish,” he added. “But it’s my first XFINITY win, and it’s something I’m proud of and proud of all these guys who have given me this JBL Camry.”

It’s not the first time Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have disagreed in the series, with Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers in 2009 when they argued post-race about whether Vickers should have let Busch go so he could chase down the leader for the win. Then a year later, Brad Coleman and Matt DiBenedetto got together at Gateway Motorsports Park.

This time around, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Executive Vice President of XFINITY and Development Steve DeSouza says it was just a product of hard racing. 

“I was kind of surprised and I’m sure Erik (Jones) was more surprised at the closing rate he had when Christopher slid up there, but that’s just part of racing, and I thought maybe he was going to try to cut down and go to the inside there,” he said. “That’s a tough one there when you see two guys racing their guts out all day long, and it’s your two cars. That’s probably the worst case scenario for us, but it’s also the pleasure of seeing the young guys and how hard they race and sometimes those things are going to happen – that’s racing, that’s competition, and that’s the sport we’re in.

“We’ll lift up the guys that didn’t have a great day and we’ll go back at it again with them and today we’re celebrating Christopher’s first win.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement

Categories
XFINITY

Cup Veteran Limits Making Progress in XFINITY Series

In the first year of limiting starts for Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers in the XFINITY Series, progress is being made to increase the series’ focus on the sport’s rising stars. 

Competitors with five or more years of full-time experience at the top level are prohibited from competing in XFINITY Series Playoffs races.

While this keeps established names out like Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and others who have dominated the series in past years, it allows the younger NASCAR Cup Series regulars still looking to make a name for themselves an opportunity to compete with other drivers with similar goals.

Saturday’s Drive Sober 200 at Dover International Speedway marked the second XFINITY Series post-season race but first on a companion weekend with the top series.

As a result, young drivers including Ryan Blaney, Daniel Suarez, and Erik Jones competed and ran well.

However, they didn’t steal the show as the race struck a balance between their success and strong performances from the championship contenders.

While Blaney won after leading a race-high 136 laps, rookie William Byron emerged as his biggest threat as the JR Motorsports driver led for 62 circuits, won Stage 1 and ended the day in third.

The run allowed Byron to jump to second on the Playoff Grid behind teammate Justin Allgaier who also had a strong race, finishing second.

Without limits on how many races the more experienced drivers can compete in, they often take up the top finishing positions. In eight races in 2017, at least four NASCAR Cup Series drivers placed in the top-five. 

That didn’t happen on Sunday as only Blaney finished inside the top-five with those in title contention filling the remaining spots with Daniel Hemric coming home third and Brennan Poole ending up fourth.

Similar restrictions will be in place for the remainder of the season, providing the opportunity for more events to play out similarly. 

Next season, those with five or more years of experience will be further limited to eight starts, and that should continue to enhance the identity of the series.

While ultimately a NASCAR Cup Series regular won on Saturday, it marked progress as the focus is on the youth of the sport and not the dominance of veterans. The limitations will pay off even more once series regulars are able to begin winning more regularly.

However, the first year of limits has shown its potential to improve the series and significant progress can continue to be made as the season draws to a close.

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EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Trucks

Bell Joining Impressive Company with KBM Success

When the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Playoffs arrive, a young, successful and talented Kyle Busch Motorsports driver seems to emerge as the championship favorite consistently.

Erik Jones captured the title in 2015 after winning three times and earning 20 top-10s in 23 races. While this performance came under the previous format, strength in the final events of the year propelled the rookie to his first career championship.

Last year, William Byron set the series on fire with six wins and entered the final seven races as the title favorite. He finished inside the top-10 in every Playoffs race but one when he blew an engine while leading late at Phoenix, which cost him the opportunity to compete in the Championship 4.

Now Christopher Bell is following in both competitor’s footsteps, dominating the series and putting himself in position to be the one to beat for the title.

He scored his fifth victory of 2017 in Saturday’s UNOH 175 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and secured his spot in the second round of the post-season. 

The 22-year-old also now holds 47 playoff points, which will tremendously aid his championship efforts.

Now strong runs or a victory at Martinsville, Texas, or Phoenix will place him among the four title contenders for the second consecutive season.

While Bell came home third last year, he is the clear driver to beat this time around.

However, the elimination format changes the game. Jones used a similar performance to what Bell has accomplished this season to capture the championship, but the current rules makes it more difficult for Bell, like Byron, demonstrated last season.

If playoff points had been in play for Byron, he likely would have cruised to the finale but having no advantage after a dominant season going into the second round hurt his title chances. 

Now Bell will have the ability to rely on his bonus points if needed to be among the four contenders. 

After the success of Jones and Byron behind the wheel for KBM, they have gone on to become two of the sport’s most promising young talents.

Next season, Jones will compete for Joe Gibbs Racing while Byron drives for Hendrick Motorsports.  

Now Bell would like to have his on-track record lead to similar opportunities. 

He has shown potential to be a factor each time he’s driven for JGR in the NASCAR XFINITY Series and could use a full-time ride with the organization next season to further showcase his talent like both Jones and Byron have been able to do for their respective teams.

Bell’s focus moving forward will be on the championship as after a dominant day at New Hampshire, it is his to lose in the final six races.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Six Bold Predictions For The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are here, so let’s get right to it.

Over the next 10 weeks, 16 drivers will compete for the 2017 Cup championship. Four will be eliminated after the third, sixth and ninth races, meaning the field will shrink from 16 drivers in Round 1 to 12 in Round 2, eight in Round 3 and four for the one-race championship round.

In those first three rounds, the drivers will carry over the playoff points they’ve earned this year to date. To give you an idea of how big that gap is, top seed Martin Truex Jr. has 2.053 points, while 16th-seed Jamie McMurray has just 2,003.

For the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the four championship contenders will all start with 5,000 points. Whoever has the best finish of the four in that race will be crowned the 2017 Cup champion. No playoff points, no bonus points, just finish ahead of the other three drivers and you win.

So with the playoffs here, time for 6 bold predictions for the championship stretch:

  1. There will be another first-time winner

Thirteen of the 16 drivers in the playoffs have won races already.  But it’s highly likely that at least someone not in the championship hunt wins one of the 10 remaining playoff races. I like Erik Jones’ chances to win one of the 10, and I also like Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win at Talladega.

  1. Encumbered finishes

NASCAR has gotten serious with scofflaws, but that hasn’t stopped teams from pushing the envelope too far. So far, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin have had encumbered finishes because their race-winning cars failed post-race inspection. There likely will be others to follow.

  1. A top seed misses final four

The top-four playoff seeds are Martin Truex Jr.(2,053 points), Kyle Larson (2,033), Kyle Busch (2,029) and Brad Keselowski (2,019). I will say it right now: At least one of these four will be eliminated before Homestead.

  1. No 8thchampionship

I believe Jimmie Johnson will go on to set the NASCAR record by winning his eighth Premier Series championship, but not this year. None of the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets has run up front much. Unthinkable as this might be, Johnson has not led a single lap in the last nine Cup races. Not one.

  1. First-time champion

The top-two seeds, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson, are looking for their first championships and have a great chance to get it this year. And as well as the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas have been running, don’t count Denny Hamlin out, either. This could be the year for a first-time champion.

  1. Late-race caution at Homestead

Since NASCAR adopted the 16-driver field for the playoffs in 2014, the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway has seen a late-race yellow flag every time. The Homestead race is scheduled for 267 laps. In 2014, there was a caution for debris in Turn 1 on Lap 263. In 2015, there was a yellow flag on Lap 258 for debris on the frontstretch, and last year there was a caution on Lap 264 for an accident in Turn 2. History suggests we’ll have another yellow in the final 10 laps at Homestead this time around.

All article photos courtesy of Nigel Kinrade Photography © 2017 

Categories
Commentary

Facts Vs. Fairy Tales, Richmond Edition

Tonight, the 26-race Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season concludes. Once the checkered flag falls on the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway, the 16-driver field for the Cup playoffs will be set.

With a chance to race for a NASCAR championship on the line, there’s a lot at stake at Richmond tonight. Which makes it a good time to play a little game I call “facts vs. fairy tales.”

Fairy tale: A new winner

The big story line tonight is, will there be a first-time winner who’ll knock somebody out of the playoffs? In the immortal words of Chuck D. and Public Enemy, “Don’t Believe The Hype.” This is the 14th year NASCAR has had the playoff system. In the previous 13 years, only once has a driver won his first race of the year at Richmond in September. That was 2004 when Jeremy Mayfield won this race in one of Ray Evernham’s Dodges to make the playoffs in the first year.

Could there be a first-time 2017 winner tonight? Sure, there could be — most likely Erik Jones or Joey Logano. But there probably won’t be. It’s hard to argue with history, and history strongly suggests this isn’t a race where someone new comes in and wins.

Fact: Most underreported story

While most media outlets are focusing on the playoffs from a driver’s perspective, a huge story has flown completely under the radar: The three automakers in NASCAR — Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota — are in a virtual dead heat for the highly coveted manufacturers’ championship, which is a huge deal for them.

In the first 25 Cup races of the year, Chevrolets have won nine times, Ford and Toyota, eight each. The points are incredibly close: Toyota leads with 879, Chevrolet has 878 and Ford has 874. This battle likely will go down to Homestead and all three combatants want to win as badly as the drivers do.

Fact: Penalties

The fact that Denny Hamlin swept both races last weekend at historic Darlington Raceway but both his race-winning Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas flunked post-race tech was a huge black eye and embarrassment. And remember at the first Richmond race, winner Joey Logano flunked post-race inspection for a similar issue. Logano’s second-place Darlington NASCAR XFINITY Series car also failed tech.

Understandably and correctly, NASCAR doesn’t want it playoffs tainted by allegations of cheating. To that end, the sanctioning body has raised the penalties for violations of Section 20.14.2 Rear Suspension I-4 portion of the NASCAR Rule Book. Now, the penalty for breaking that rule in the Cup Series is an encumbered finish, the loss of 40 driver and owner points, a $75,000 crew chief fine and three-race suspensions of both the team’s crew chief and car chief.

Fairly tale: Johnson is out of it

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has had a terrible summer of racing. Since winning at Dover, Johnson’s last 12 races have produced a best finish of 10th, an average finish of 21.17 and just 16 laps led. None of the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets have had much speed this summer.

Despite those awful numbers, when the NASCAR playoffs roll around, Johnson and the No. 48 crew always seem to find a way to rebound and rise up to the challenge. He’s never out of it until he’s out of it.

Fact: NASCAR tracks stepping up

This has nothing to do with tonight’s race, but kudos to Atlanta Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway for opening their campgrounds for Hurricane Irma evacuees. That’s a very cool thing to do.

All article photos courtesy of Nigel Kinrade Photography © 2017 

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Who Still Has a Legit Shot at Crashing NASCAR’s Playoffs?

We’re down to crunch time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season. Already, 13 drivers are locked into the 10-race, season-ending Cup playoffs by virtue of race wins so far this season.

Three other drivers are winless, but have the most points among those who haven’t won this year. So if there are no new winners in the final two races of the Cup regular season, Chase Elliott (711 points), Matt Kenseth (703) and Jamie McMurray (700) would likely qualify for the playoffs even though they haven’t won a race in 2017. 

Clint Bowyer (642) is the first driver on the outside looking in, although it’s improbable he’ll make up enough points in two races to get into the playoffs.

So which drivers are winless in 2017, but could still win one of the last two regular-season races at Darlington Raceway or Richmond International Raceway? Here are eight possibilities:

Trevor Bayne

Although he’s just 19th in points, Bayne finished fifth at Michigan and seventh at Bristol last weekend. That’s the good news. The bad news is his average finish at Darlington is 37.50 (!) and it’s 18.2 at Richmond.

Clint Bowyer

Richmond is Bowyer’s second-best track, statistically speaking, with an average finish there of 12.87. Darlington, on the other hand, is Bowyer’s second-worst track, at a 20.000 average finish. In the last six races of this season, Bowyer has finished seventh or better three times.

Jamie McMurray

In the last nine races, McMurray hasn’t managed to finish in the top five. He has three top fives and an average finish of 15.88 at Darlington, better than his 19.17 average finish at Richmond.

Joey Logano

In the last four races, Logano’s best result was 13th at Bristol. Logano has two Richmond Cup victories and an excellent average finish there on 12.47. At Darlington, however, Logano’s average finish is 18.38, which ranks as his third worst among the 23 tracks where Cup teams race. Although Logano is in a bit of a funk right now, he could be someone to watch, especially at Richmond.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

For the millions of Junior Nation fans, Richmond is a place to look forward to. Earnhardt has three race wins there, tying him with Phoenix for the most race wins at non-restrictor-plate tracks. Earnhardt’s average finish at Richmond is 13.71, with Darlington close by at 14.00. But Earnhardt’s last top-10 finish was at Sonoma, and his Hendrick Chevrolets have not had much speed lately.

Daniel Suarez

Like Erik Jones, Suarez is a Cup rookie in one of the affiliated Toyota teams. And like Jones, Suarez has never raced at Darlington. In his only Cup race at Richmond, Suarez finished a decent 12th. Suarez has four finishes of seventh or better in the last six races.

Erik Jones

With finishes of third at Michigan and second at Bristol, Jones heads into the final two races of the Cup regular season on a hot streak. But he’s never raced a Cup car at Darlington and was 38th at Richmond in his only Cup start there.

Matt Kenseth

If any driver is going to score his first win of 2017 in the next two races, the odds strongly suggest it will be one of the Toyota pilots.  Kenseth has four top fives in the last six races, and he’s won once at Darlington (15.83 average finish) and twice at Richmond (16.14).

Categories
Commentary

A Victory Could Make Jones a Dangerous Title Contender

It proves difficult to gauge the potential of rookies ahead of each season. With little experience behind the wheel of a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car, they face a steep learning curve, and it’s tough to predict how quickly they will overcome it.

Erik Jones entered 2017 as the favorite to win Rookie of the Year after excelling in the lower ranks and showing promise in his first few NASCAR Cup Series starts in substitute roles.

After facing a slow start, he is now running better than ever and emerging as a significant threat as the regular season nears its end. 

The NRA / Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway marked his best race yet. After winning the pole, he remained up front throughout the night, led the most laps with 260, and seemed to be the only driver capable of challenging eventual winner Kyle Busch before finishing a career-high second-place.

While Busch’s experience and prowess at Bristol provided an advantage, keeping pace and performing well attested to Jones’ talent.

The Furniture Row Racing driver scored his fourth consecutive top-10 finish on Saturday night. He and Busch are the only two competitors to place inside the top-10 in each of the last four events, setting themselves apart as the Playoffs approach.

Although Busch is comfortably locked in with two wins, Jones is on the outside looking in.

With two races remaining before Chicagoland, it will take a victory from Jones to propel the No. 77 team into championship contention.

Based on how well Furniture Row Racing is running, Toyota’s strength, and Jones’ momentum, a win has never seemed more likely.

His next challenge will be translating his recent success into another shot at victory at one of the toughest tracks on the schedule, Darlington Raceway.

In one career XFINITY Series start, he placed sixth last September. It’s one of the most challenging tracks for young drivers.

The regular season finale at Richmond Raceway will feature many teams making last-ditch efforts for victory. But Jones will stand out in his attempt if he can continue performing this well.

Consistency and speed at this point of the year is critical for post-season hopefuls. Jones is doing everything he needs to do, but a win is all that will matter in the next two races.

Should Jones achieve a post-regular-season berth, it will put his competitors on notice.

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EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.